Not too long ago, I did something that I had wanted to do for a very long time: I dove the freezing waters of the Puget Sound. This may seem a tad crazy to most. Even for seasoned scuba divers, diving in this local isn’t exactly a bucket list topper (although, in recent years, curiously, diving in the Antarctic has been surging). In any case, I had been curious for many years about diving the Pacific Northwest, especially so that I could see Puget Sound’s most famous denizen, the giant Pacific octopus. Also, I’m a tad crazy.
My partner in this crazy adventure was my good friend, long time dive buddy, and biologist extraordinaire, J. Cameron Thrash, Ph.D. Cameron is a professor of marine microbial biology at Louisiana State University with plenty of exotic diving experiences under his belt. Over the years, Cameron and I have dived numerous interesting places together – mostly off the San Diego coast and the much warmer waters of Hawaii. This dive, however, turned out to be a very different animal altogether. Our dive site, Rockaway Beach, which Cameron chose, is a smallish, semi-protected cove on the coast of Bainbridge Island, directly across from Seattle. The site offers relatively calm currents, interesting and varied underwater topography, and easy shore access. And just in case it’s needed, there are plenty of warm, cozy cafés and wine bars nearby in town to help re-establish core temperatures post dive. Scuba diving in cold water is not actually that rare and many divers – especially those who reside in the Pacific Northwest – make it a regular habit. For me, this was a new and (dare I say) exciting experience; one that I made sure to chronicle with photos, video, and an accurate temperature gauge.
Cameron, who had dove in the Puget Sound a few times in the past, was completely prepped for the experience. I, admittedly, was not. My own logbook contains plenty of temperate-water dive entries – mainly off Central and Northern California – so I did, of course, expect to get cold. But none of those experiences quite prepared me for the system shock of entering 48° F (9° C) water for the first time. The sensation of icy water hitting the skin around your face – that exposed ring between your neoprene hood and your mask – is like nothing for which there is a proper description. It is the worst ice-cream headache imaginable, gradually replaced by a frosty numbing that you are certain will require months of surgical skin grafting to repair. Surprisingly, the paltry 7mm of wetsuit between my skin and the Sound was effective enough to keep my core enough above hypothermic levels to endure 25 minutes of immersion. My fingers, on the other hand, started feeling it big time. You know that sensation of holding a really icy cold bottle or can or block of ice or frozen turkey, and your fingers start to feel an intense, burning pain such that you have to drop whatever it is you’re holding, dash for the sink and drench your fingers in a stream of soothing warm water? Imagine that happening, but you can’t drop the frozen turkey and there’s no warm water nearby. Yeah, that. Icy fire. Ouch. [Note to self: Next time bring much better gloves.]
Temperatures (and being kind of a cold wimp) aside, diving this area is a beautiful experience. It’s much more interesting and colorful than one might expect and it’s completely worth the temporary discomfort. When shining a flashlight on the algae-encrusted rocks, vivid carpets of red and purple seem to glow and spark to life before your eyes. Huge columnar Metridium anemones of soft white and pastel orange topped with thousands of tiny frilly tentacles waft in the current like a forest of enormous, ghostly mushrooms. Delicate nudibranchs and dorises of iridescent blues and yellows crawl across rocks and on the substrate of thousands of broken oyster and mussel shells alongside sea cucumbers of stunningly bright reds. And every few meters, dungeoness crabs, from the size of a hand to bigger than a football, scurry around looking for a next morsel of kelp… Or more likely a place to hide.
Speaking of hiding, the star of the show when diving the Puget Sound is undoubtedly the giant Pacific octopus. As far as octopuses go, they’re huge, very curious, and very charismatic. For divers, interacting with them truly is a bucket list item – and often the main reason why many divers (like this one) gladly endure those frigid waters. Finding them in this area fortunately isn’t extremely difficult, but getting one to come out and play can sometimes be a challenge. Divemasters often bring a bag full of shrimp or sacrifice a nearby dungeoness crab to coax one out of its dens. In our case, we found one in fairly short order (our divemaster knew exactly where to look for that particular local resident). Sadly, she wasn’t in the mood. She stared at us from within her den, as if taunting us just out of reach and thinking “You’re cold, aren’t you?” I settled for a slightly out of focus mug shot. But merely seeing one, even snug in its den, was still quite a thrill.
If you’re a frequent visitor to the Pacific Northwest – and Seattle in particular – and you have that hearty, outdoorsy bent and the stamina to endure frigid temperatures for short periods, then diving the Puget Sound should go on your to-do list. There are several local operators of good repute (on Bainbridge Island, I recommend Exotic Aquatics) who are more than happy to accommodate everyone, from first timers to cold-water veterans alike. A bit of advice: bring good gloves, a dry suit (if you have one), and a thermos of something very hot.